Any beginner’s course on public communication stresses the importance of eye contact for building a connection between the speaker and the audience. The same holds true for advice of the romantic variety, with scientific research supporting the claim that direct eye contact makes people seem more attractive to potential mates. But eyes don’t necessarily need to be human to have a powerful effect: those of a talking cartoon rabbit are just as potent.
The psychologists of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab set out to examine the types of eye contact made by cereal “spokes-characters” with supermarket consumers. First, the scientists went shopping, scouring ten grocery stores throughout the Northeast for 65 different types of cereal and 86 different mascots. They measured the height of each box on the store shelf and then calculated the angle of the direction in which the mascot for each cereal was looking.
As might be expected, traditional “children’s” cereals such as Cap’n Crunch and Lucky Charms were placed at nearly half the height of “adult” cereals such as Wheaties and Quaker Oat Squares. But the researchers also found that the mascots on the children’s cereal boxes almost universally had downward gazes, while those of adult cereals stared straight ahead. This difference meant that the mascots made “incidental eye contact” with their target audiences.
Although directing a mascot’s gaze may be a common marketing technique, the Cornell researchers also wanted to determine if the trick was effective. They divided a group of 63 students into two groups, showing one set of participants a Trix box with a downward-gazing rabbit and the other a box on which the rabbit looked directly at the viewer.
Amazingly, simply changing the direction of the mascot’s eyes had a significant effect on measures of “brand trust” and “brand connection,” as well as preference for Trix over other cereals. Participants who viewed the box with the straight-staring rabbit reported feeling 28 percent more engaged with the brand than those who saw the alternative.
An unscientific examination (slightly NSFW) of other grocery products by Cracked’s XJ Selman shows the same pattern: Keebler’s elves, the Kool-Aid man and Kid Cuisine’s penguin all cast their gazes towards the toddler set. These brands share more than psychology with children’s cereals, as both are generally highly processed and high in sugar. The Cornell researchers noted that eye-contact marketing to kids is used mostly for unhealthy products, advising parents to avoid taking children down the cereal aisle lest they go “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.” But with their newfound psychological understanding, the scientists also hope to advise sellers of healthier products on how to generate childhood interest in eating right.